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Have you seen Survivor lately? Did you even know it was still on?

Survivor originated in Sweden (called Expedition Robinson) was brought to the United States in May, 2000. It is also has other versions in international markets. I saw some of the early seasons but at some point I stopped watching, looking for something new.

Then this year my sixteen year old found a few seasons on Netflix and I was sucked back in.

Sure, every season seems to be a confirmation that William Golding was correct in his assessment of societal breakdown in his classic Lord of the Flies. Although Golding was writing about how children behave without authority or societal structure, his conclusion appears to hold true regardless of age.

I have found Survivor to be a fascinating social experiment, better than anything that you could put together in a psychology lab.

Bring eighteen to twenty strangers together in a remote place with limited resources (1/2 cup of rice per day, plus what they can scavenge from the island), set a high reward (one million dollars), and then present competitions where they can win various things to help their “tribe” or themselves individually.

Every season is the same. There is backstabbing, deceit, faux alliances, sneaking around for advantages, stealing of resources and overall skullduggery. There are people on the top of the pecking order and others that fall to the bottom. And if you are identified as a leader or a person in charge, you get a target on your back and those at the bottom will band together to cast you off the island. And at the end, a jury of your peers determines who, of two or three finalists will receive the million dollars.

In the seasons I’ve watched so far, the “best” player doesn’t win. Honesty and integrity (two of the leadership pillars I preach) get you nowhere, but lies and manipulation will bring you out on top. In fact, I’ve observed there are two things that will almost guarantee that you will get voted off the island. Being a leader and being physically strong.

Physical strength is a double-edged sword. Each tribe wants the strong person to help them win the challenges, but as the game approaches the individual challenges rather than the group challenges, they physically weaker turn on the strong ones so they (the weak ones) have a better chance to get to the final prize. If you’ve never seen the show, individual challenges allow someone to win “immunity” for the next tribal council so they can’t be voted off. But not all challenges are strength based, so the strength advantage is not 100%.

What is nearly 100% guaranteed to get you voted off is leading. Perceived leaders will be brought down as quickly as possible. It reminds me of the story of crabs in a pot crawling over each other to get out and pulling any crab back down if it gets close to the top. Leaders that emerge get their heads chopped off, UNLESS they have been successful at cultivating extremely strong loyalty.

The show is not a perfect mirror of society, but there are lots of lessons to be gleaned from it. We’ll take a look at them over the next few weeks.


Dr. Jeff

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